Seward, Alaska: The Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964

In January, Dale and I experienced our first real earthquake, so now is as good a time as any to talk about a much more famous quake and one of the most significant events in Alaskan history—the Great Earthquake of 1964.

It’s impossible to overstate just how much this event affected Alaska.  It devastated numerous towns, including Seward, and also crippled the state’s economy.  The recovery process took years and changed the face of many towns.  Even though the state has long since recovered, the earthquake of 1964 still hangs over Alaska and was certainly on the minds of many last month.

Here’s a closer look at this epic piece of Alaskan history.

The Great Alaskan Earthquake

I talked in our last post about how prone Alaska is to earthquakes.  It’s one the most seismically active regions in the world, and four of the 20 largest earthquakes ever recorded occurred here.  The most powerful of these was the Great Alaskan quake of 1964, also known as the Good Friday earthquake because it happened on the Friday before Easter.  The earthquake registered a mild-boggling magnitude 9.2 and remains the second-largest earthquake in recorded history, second only behind the magnitude 9.5 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile.

The quake struck at 5:36 PM on March 27.  The epicenter was about 95 air miles northeast of Seward in Prince William Sound.  The ground shook for 3-4 minutes, which must’ve felt like an eternity to the people experiencing it.

Unlike the temblor that we experienced last month, the Good Friday quake  was along a subduction zone, a place where one tectonic plate slides beneath another.  In this case, it was the Pacific plate, which is slipping under the North American plate at a rate of a few inches a year.  This may sound like a minuscule amount, and indeed, the Pacific plate’s movements are glacial in pace, but over time these movements create tremendous pressure between the plates.  The release of this tension, which has been building for centuries, sometimes results in “megathrust earthquakes” such as the one in 1964.  The Good Friday quake occurred along a fault line 500 miles long and had a magnitude one-tenth greater than that of the 2011 earthquake that devastated Japan.

Alaskan science writer Ned Rozell described the mechanism behind the Good Friday earthquake, using verbs worthy of such a violent geological event: “The Pacific Plate lurched under the North American Plate, tearing and lifting and dropping and throttling, for a terrible four minutes.”  And in the process of all that rending and cleaving and ripping asunder, the quake released 200,000 megatons of energy.  Such a number is difficult to process, so to put it into perspective, bombs are often measured in terms of kiloton (the equivalent of a thousand tons of TNT) and megaton (which is equal to a million tons of TNT).  Fat Man, the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in WWII, was equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT (well less than one megaton), and the most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated, the Soviet Union’s Tsar Bomba, produced a 50-megaton blast.   So the 1964 earthquake was 4000 times more powerful than the mightiest nuclear bomb ever detonated!

Communities destroyed

The continental shelf and the North American plate rose almost 30 feet.  As you can imagine, such immense displacement of the earth beneath Alaska had cataclysmic affects on the people living atop it.  The ground shifted, raising dozens of feet in some places and dropping precipitously in others.
Alaska 1964 earthquake raised dock
The USGS caption accompanying this photo reads, “Uplifted dock on Hinchinbrook Island, Prince William Sound. Land in this area rose about 8 feet during the earthquake, and the dock can now be used only at extremely high tides.”
Numerous towns and villages throughout south-central Alaska were destroyed or severely damaged by a combination of seismic activity, tsunamis, and fires.  In Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city, entire blocks were ruined by the shifting and rending of land, and four massive landslides wiped out several neighborhoods.
Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage  (U.S. Geological Survey)

 

Anchorage, Alaska, Government Hill Elem. School damage, 1964 earthquake
Government Hill Elementary School in Anchorage.  An immense landslide destroyed the Government Hill neighborhood (U.S. Geological Survey)

 

Anchorage, Alaska Turnagain Heights, 1964 earthquake
A destroyed neighborhood in Anchorage (NOAA)
The quake unleashed vast underwater landslides in Prince William Sound and in places like Resurrection Bay, on which Seward sits.  These landslides resulted in devastating localized tsunamis, which were then followed by even more massive seismic tsunamis.  The oil spilled from damaged tanks also caused fires in Valdez, Whittier, and Seward.
Whittier, Alaska, 1964 earthquake
Whittier, Alaska.  The darkened ground shows how far inland the tsunamis went, washing away the snow cover. Oil tanks also caught fire, causing further damage.  The multi-story building in which most of the town now resides can be seen in the background.  (U.S. Geological Survey)

 

Valdez, Alaska, tank fire, 1964 earthquake
Valdez, Alaska, tank fire (NOAA)
Seward, Alaska earthquake of 1964
This man illustrates the power of the tsunami that hit Seward–a board was driven through this truck tire by the force of the waves (NOAA)
Subduction earthquakes often generate large seismic tsunamis because the action of one plate thrusting beneath another displaces large amounts of water.  The Good Friday Earthquake was no exception.  In some places, the waves reached land within minutes of the quake’s onset and inundated coastal areas with water as much as 170 feet above sea level.  A record wave run-up of of 220 feet occurred near Valdez.
And it wasn’t just Alaska; the earthquake’s effects traveled far beyond the state’s borders.  In fact, the Alaska Earthquake Center said that “the whole earth vibrated…like a church bell” for days after the event.  People standing atop Seattle’s Space Needle felt it sway, and effects were felt as far away as Florida.
The quake was so powerful that it generated tsunamis all along the Canadian and U.S. Pacific coastline and as far away as Hawaii.  A tsunami hit Port Alberni, in British Columbia, about three hours after the initial quake, washing away 55 homes and damaging 375 others.  Tsunamis killed 5 in Oregon and 13 in California.

The road and rail systems of south-central Alaska were also severely damaged.

Seward Highway damage 1964 Alaska earthquake
Collapsed Twenty-mile River Bridge on the Seward Highway near Turnagain Arm. The railroad bridge seen in the background, which was made of steel, survived with only minor damage.  (U.S. Geological Survey)
Seward Highway, Alaska, fractures, 1964 earthquake
This stretch of the Seward Highway split down the middle. (U.S. Geological Survey)
Car straddling crack, Great Alaskan Earthquake 1964
A car straddles a rupture in the pavement. (NOAA National Geophysical Data Center)

 

1964 Alaskan earthquake
These rails near the head of Turnagain Arm were ripped from their ties and buckled under movement of the riverbanks during the earthquake. (U.S. Geological Survey)
Copper River Bridge after 1964 earthquake
A span of the “Million Dollar Bridge,”  a railroad bridge that crossed the Copper River, collapsed  (U.S. Geological Survey)

The impact on Seward

Seward is one of the few year-round ice-free ports in Alaska, and it has long been an important conduit for goods being shipped to and from Alaska.  At the time of the Good Friday earthquake, Seward’s economy was mostly based on shipping, with barges, freighters, and fishing boats moving into and out of the harbor all of the time, and goods headed for mainland Alaska were then delivered north via train or truck.

The earthquake and the events that followed devastated both the commercial section of town and multiple residential areas, and in a matter of minutes, Seward’s economy was wiped out.

First, there was the landslide.  Within 30 seconds of the quake’s beginning, violent tremors caused the coastline along the waterfront to give way.  A strip of land slid into Resurrection Bay, taking with it the equipment, railroad tracks, buildings and docks sitting atop it.  The landslide also created a localized tsunami with 30-foot waves that crashed ashore almost immediately.

Seward, Alaska 1964 earthquake
A severed railroad track, abruptly routed into Resurrection Bay after the ground beneath it washed away (NOAA)

A second tsunami reached Seward about 20 minutes later.  This one was seismic and spanned the width of the bay (just picture that).  Needless to say, the onslaught of water devastated the town.  To make matters worse, burning oil tanks created a raging fire that further added to the damage.

Seward, Alaska 1964 earthquake
Damaged oil tanks (NOAA)

Twelve people were killed, and about 90 percent of the city suffered damage.  Railroad facilities, docks, and oil tanks were all destroyed, and residential areas fared little better:  over 86 houses were destroyed and 260 heavily damaged.  Damage to private and public properties was estimated to be $22 million (the equivalent of $167.2 million in 2015).

Here are some photos of the devastation in Seward:
Seward, Alaska, 1964 earthquake
Th snow line on the hill toward the back of this photo shows the high-water line of the tsunami.   (U.S. Geological Survey)

 

Seward, Alaska earthquake of 1964
Destroyed Texaco tanker truck and stranded boat (NOAA)
Seward, Alaska earthquake of 1964
Train cars carried far away from the tracks on which they rested (NOAA)

 

Seward, Alaska museum
This train horn is displayed in Seward’s community museum.  A placard near the artifact reads: “According to the donor, this train horn was found on the beach after the earthquake. The waves that hit Seward … were so strong that the two-ton Alaska Railroad locomotive that the horn came from was thrown almost 200 feet away from the railroad tracks.”

 

Seward, Alaska 1964 earthquake
(NOAA)

 

Seward, Alaska 1964 earthquake
(NOAA)

 

Seward, Alaska 1964 earthquake railroad carnage
(NOAA)

 

(NOAA)
Seward, Alaska, 1964 earthquake
(NOAA)

 

Seward, Alaska, destroyed truck, 1964 earthquake
Truck wrapped around a tree.  It was about 32 feet above water level at the time the tsunamis hit. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Death toll

The number of people who died in the earthquake is not 100% clear, but most sources I saw documented the death toll as 139.  The earthquake itself caused 15 deaths, and the ensuing tsunamis were much more deadly, killing 124 people (106 in Alaska, 13 in California and 5 in Oregon).  The community that was hit the hardest in terms of percentage of the population killed was the Alaska Native village of Chenega, where 23 people—a third of its population—died, including children who were ripped from their parents’ arms by the tsunami’s waves.

Each death was a tragedy, and yet the death toll was surprisingly low given the awesome power and size of the earthquake.  Why wasn’t it worse?  There were several factors.  First, it was a holiday, and many people in the devastated waterfront commercial areas were not at work.  But also, Alaska was (and still is) sparsely populated compared to the mainland U.S.  If the Good Friday earthquake had hit a more populous area, the death toll would likely have been much, much higher.

Recovery

Seward, Alaska, 1964 earthquake
The waterfront of Seward, Alaska, several weeks after the earthquake.  The landslide gave the shoreline a scalloped shape, and the heaps of wrecked railcars, vehicles and other debris can still be seen here. (U.S. Geological Survey)

All told, the earthquake and its aftermath caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in the U.S. and Canada.  Alaska’s economy was devastated, and the state didn’t have the resources to address such a widespread disaster on its own.  Fortunately, the federal government provided immediate and prolonged assistance.  The U.S. Military, which has long had a presence in the state, reestablished communication and water and provided food, supplies, and support to heavily hit areas.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assisted with the long process of clean up and then helped plan and rebuild roads and cities.  Federal disaster relief funds financed the rebuilding effort and helped sustain the government of the State of Alaska until it could get back on its feet.  The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center was created, and an Alaska National Guard was formed to address any future disasters that might occur.  And, as luck would have it, massive oil deposits were found a few years later in Prudhoe Bay.  Once the infrastructure was in place and the oil started flowing, the revenue from the oil fields drastically improved Alaska’s economy.

Seward also recovered, and the waterfront was transformed from a site of industry to one of tourism.  The city created the Seward Waterfront Park and Campground, which contains a walking path and a large campground that hugs the shoreline of Resurrection Bay.  Seward has become a tourist destination, and in the summer the park is beyond packed with RV’s and tent campers.  Seasonal workers and tourists flood in, and the town’s population grows exponentially in the summer.  And it’s so worth a visit; Seward is one of the prettiest towns in Alaska!

Seward, Alaska, Resurrection Bay
Looking back at Seward from a boat.   The strip of land at the water’s edge is the Waterfront Park and Campground.  We took a Kenai Fjords boat trip in 2017, crossing Resurrection Bay and going into the Gulf of Alaska, and it gave us a nice perspective of the little town that we call home.

~~~~~

Seward, Alaska, Resurrection Bay

Dale and I love Waterfront Park.  We walk its paved path frequently, taking in the million-dollar views and enjoying all manner of wildlife, from whales, sea lions, seals, and otters to eagles, sea birds, and even, occasionally, moose.

Seward, Alaska, moose
Last winter, this moose wandered all over Waterfront Park one snowy afternoon

 

An eagle finishing off his feathered feast

 

Seward, Alaska, Resurrection Bay, steller sea lions
Steller sea lions, which we enjoyed watching from the walking path at Waterfront Park

 

Seward, Alaska, Resurrection Bay, humpback whale
A humpback whale seen at sunset

 

Even though the industry that once existed here is now gone, reminders remain; wooden stumps protruding from the water and rusted remnants leading to nowhere evoke a different Seward, one that thrived before an enormous catastrophe swept it away.

It’s also sobering to know that lives were lost here.

Seward, Alaska, Resurrection Bay

 

Seward, Alaska
Remnants of a dock

Last month’s temblor was nothing like the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964, but at M7.9 it was certainly no slouch, and it reminded us that the next big one is always possible, not just in Alaska but along any number of fault systems on the West Coast or around the world, and that any belief in solid ground is, to quote the Alaska Daily News,“one of humanity’s greatest illusions.”

And yet, despite the high number of earthquakes that Alaska gets, it’s a much safer place to live these days.  The early warning system that we experienced first-hand a few weeks ago allowed for quick evacuation of the waterfront and low-lying areas.  And thanks to extensive scientific studies surrounding the Good Friday quake, we now understand what causes subduction earthquakes.  In fact, the event helped prove the theory of plate tectonics, which was a fledgling concept back in 1964.  Having knowledge of  how mega-quakes are formed makes us all safer, and it’s one of the good things that came out of a truly catastrophic natural disaster.

 


Sources:

US Geological Survey Information page: The Great M9.2 Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami of March 27, 1964.  This page offers lots of fascinating information, links, and videos.

NOAA: On This Day: Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami

Alaska Earthquake Center

NOAA: Tsunami Historical Series

Wikipedia, 1964 Alaska earthquake

Anchorage Daily News, In Great Alaska Earthquake, most deaths were caused by tsunamis

Anchorage Daily News, The scars of Alaska’s 1964 earthquake still have lessons for us

Here’s a U.S. Geological Survey video about how the 1964 earthquake helped scientists better understand plate tectonics.

This You Tube page links to numerous earthquake videos and historic footage.

The historic photos used in this post, all within the public domain, were taken from the following sources:

NOAA Natural Hazards Image Database

NOAA’s Historic Coast & Geodetic Survey (C&GS) Collection Catalog of Images

U.S. Geological Survey 1964 Alaska Earthquake Damage Photos